Friday, October 30, 2015

How to Celebrate Halloween as an Act of Christian Discipleship

Last week, I published a post suggesting that the debate among evangelical Christian families as to whether or not it's appropriate to celebrate Halloween is an issue best left to individual conscience--an example of the "disputed matters" of Romans 14. However, I also noted that I'm in the camp of those who feel that Halloween can indeed be appropriate for Christian practice. In this week's post, I'll give some specific theological reflections and suggestions as to how this might be.

1.) The Universal Church

The Church Triumphant and the Church Militant
In our evangelical heritage, most denominations will profess belief, in some form or another, in what is called "the universal church"--that is, that the Church, the Body of Christ, is composed of all those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are mystically united to them, in faith and love, as members of one body, regardless of the separations of denomination, distance, and time. However, unlike in other traditions of Christianity, evangelicals do a rather poor job at giving ourselves places to remember the last part of that description: that we are mystically united to them, regardless of the separations of time. Most evangelical theologians would hold that those Christians who have already died are nevertheless still alive in a spiritual state, and that they too are part of the Church universal, to whom we are intimately connected as members of one body. In old theological terms, these two sides of the Body of Christ were portrayed as "the Church triumphant" (in heaven) and "the Church militant" (on earth). A few evangelical theologians have even suggested, as seems reasonable, that the departed saints, now in the presence of the Lord, are sharing with him the ministry of intercession and prayer for we who are still on earth--that is to say, they are connected to us, perhaps in very intimate and active ways. But we never talk about this fact in evangelical churches, and almost none of our practices remind us of it--we have chosen a rootless and homeless existence, willfully cutting ourselves off from the grounding treasures of Christian history and of learning from and celebrating our spiritual family, the ones with whom we will share eternity. 

Halloween, when practiced as a traditional Christian holiday, helps to fill this gap. In its practice throughout the older Christian traditions of Europe, church services are held on Halloween, with prayers and hymns that praise God for the faith and example of those who have gone before us (here's one of my favorites: a new version of the old hymn "For All the Saints"). Halloween, together with All Saints Day, provides believers an opportunity to tell the stories of those who've gone before and to use the tradition of costuming to teach our children about some of the great heroes of the faith. (Incidentally, if you're interested in hearing some of those stories, I have an archive of "Heroes of the Faith" studies on my church website as audio podcasts from our Sunday evening services, mostly from 2011-2012.) One traditional practice on Halloween is for believers to go to the cemetery and light candles by the graves of departed Christians--in some countries where this is done, the effect is so impressive that these lighted cemeteries are given their own hauntingly poetic name--"seas of light." That strikes me as a beautiful way to remind ourselves of the great truths to which we hold: that death is not the end, that Christ has conquered the grave and brought light to the darkness, and that those who have gone before us are living even now in the presence of the great shekinah glory of the Lord.

2.) Meditating on Death

Halloween can also provide a useful reminder to us of one of the most important but least-practiced Christian spiritual disciplines: meditating on death. One of the most famous lines of Christian liturgy, spoken by many denominations every Ash Wednesday, is taken from the words of God to the first humans: "Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (from Gen. 3:19). If you read the early church fathers, and particularly the desert fathers, it is hard to find a more consistently-given piece of spiritual advice: "Keep the thought of death always before you." In the tradition of Western religious painting, the conventional way to paint a great saint or religious person at prayer was to include a human skull in the picture, often being touched by the person as an object of reflective contemplation. 

Why all this focus on death? Well, it's a necessary reminder to us of some of the basic facts of human nature, facts that cut against the grain of our inborn tendencies toward prideful self-absorption. Death reminds us that, aside from the gracious choice of God to offer the gift of eternal life, we would simply be nothing more than the physical elements that fill up our flesh. Our bodies will return to dust, our headstones will grow old and faded, and 99.9% of all people who come after us will not even be aware that we ever existed. The world will go on without us, just as it always has. We will be forgotten, and, a generation or two hence, we will not be missed. 

I'm not just saying these things to be depressingly macabre; I'm saying them because they're true, and we need to hear them. We make so much of our own lives, our own petty little issues here and now, that seem so huge to us in the present moment, but, when compared to the "big picture" that death forces us to focus on, really don't matter much at all. The bitter pill of meditating on death packs a powerful dose of humility, and humility is the Christian virtue par excellence, the antidote to pride and the gateway that enables us to leave our inward-focused obsessions and actually be able to fulfill the command to love God and love others. It cuts through our delusions of self-importance, and assists us on focusing on those things that truly matter, things that last beyond the grave: faith, hope, and love; expanding the Kingdom of God in our hearts and in the world.

But we evangelicals tend not to think much about death. We take "everlasting life" for granted, as the natural outcome of some imagined eternal quality natural to the human spirit (rather than contingent on God's eternality), so that death is merely a passage. No, death is the universe's actual appraisal of our value as creatures--we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It is only by the unimaginable grace of God that we have something beyond death to hope toward, and we have too often taken that grace for granted. Death reminds us of our creatureliness, of our status as contingent beings, wholly dependent on God. 

So Halloween's focus on death need not be construed as something unhealthy, macabre, or anti-Christian. Skulls and headstones are among the most ancient and revered symbols of one of the greatest practices of personal devotion, a practice that evangelicals probably ought to recover. One of these days, instead of doing your quiet time at home, take a thoughtful prayerwalk through a cemetery--it can be a great aid to virtue.

3.)  Making a Spectacle of the Powers

One of the most troubling aspects of Halloween to many thoughtful Christians is the way that it seems to make play of things that are associated with evil: witches, devils, vampires, etc. I'll agree that I'm not wild about that part of it--while we let our kids enjoy the celebration of Halloween, we prefer to have them in costumes that are positive and innocuous. 

However, it's worth reflecting on the fact that we live in a culture in which, thanks largely to our Christian heritage, the very real powers of evil in the world today have lost much of their out-in-the-open mastery over people's lives. Allow me to explain what I mean: there's a very real difference between what we Americans do at Halloween, taking on the dress of witches and devils as something playful, something void of all power to terrify because we know they don't really have a hold over us, in contrast to the practices of many animistic (and pre-Christian pagan) cultures around the world, who also have rituals in which people dress up as witches or devils--but in those instances, the power of evil is very real, noticeably present, and inflamed by deep-rooted fear in the lives of those people. As a missionary kid who has lived and worked in countries with significant animistic-culture backgrounds, I can testify to the chilling power of that fear. Witches and devils are paraded about in animistic cultures because the powers of evil are openly active in their world in a way that is hard for us Westerners to imagine (we in the West, of course, do still have to deal with the activity of demonic powers, but not in quite the same out-in-the-open way of bondage and fear). Animist societies feel that those powers must be placated; they must be acknowledged and their anger expiated, or else death and disease and curses and black magic will begin destroying lives in the most terrifying ways. 

In the Christian worldview, however, of which remnants still remain in our culture's practice of Halloween, those evil powers have been utterly shattered by Christ. They have been voided of power. They no longer have the ability to truly terrify, because their hold on us is gone, thanks to the victory of Christ. Witches and devils have been reduced to playthings, making mockery of their delusions of power--they are made a "spectacle" because of what Christ has done (Col. 2:15). When Jesus took on the evil powers of sin, Satan, and Hades, he didn't do it by simply engulfing them in a beautiful flash of the endless, blissful light of the love of God--no, he took them down on their own terms, he drank down their symbols of horror and abuse; in the words of the ancient liturgical proclamation, he trampled down death by death

So, unless you're actually invoking demonic spirits or intending to pursue a new career in black magic, even the Halloween costumes that relate to those things need not necessarily be objectionable to the Christian mind: they are signs that Christ has conquered, that he has taken what were once very real powers of evil that kept human cultures in terrifying bondage, and has so voided them of strength that they have become mere playthings, items of mockery and jest. Halloween, which parades those shattered remnants of old spiritual bondage and smothers them in showers of neighborly goodwill and generosity, can bring very little consolation, I would think, to Satan and his powers.

4.) Love Thy Neighbor

This is the easiest aspect of Christian-Halloween practice for us to wrap our minds around. One of the great commandments of Christ to us is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Well, Halloween is a holiday that gives us occasion to love our neighbors, to interact with our fellow citizens, to bless them with generosity and kindness. Shutting our doors on Halloween, on the other hand, especially if our neighbors know that we are Christians, will do more to bring reproach to our faith than to magnify its holiness. Depending on the expectations of your local community, you may be seen, even if that is not your intent, as being intentionally unneighborly and overly legalistic. But, as I've written before, there are also good reasons that Christians might have for deciding not to celebrate Halloween; and if your conscience directs you in that way, I would simply encourage you to be intentionally active in other ways to make your love of neighbor known to those around you, so that your disassociation from your community on this holiday won't lead to your faith being judged as unneighborly. 

(Images - Point #1, inset left: "The Way of Salvation," or "The Church Militant and Triumphant," by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1367, fresco; Point #1, inset right: photo of candles and cross in a cemetery in Helsinki, by Pöllö, 24 December 2007, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; Point #2, inset left: "Mary Magdalene," by Jan Boeckhorst or Jan Cossiers, c.1650, oil on panel; Point #2, inset right: "San Jerónimo," by José de Ribera, 1634, oil on canvas; Point #3, inset left: "Mitigat Accensam Divini Numinis Iram Post Varios esu Casus de Morte Resurges," by Steffan Kreutzer, et al, 1585, copper engraving on paper.)